Business Journal

Pondering the future of Gaines St.Gaines Street MakeoverAn attractive, pedestrian-friendly “gateway corridor” is years away. What does it mean for stakeholders?

By Jason Dehart

{mosimage}For years, Gaines Street has served a utilitarian purpose – a corridor speedily moving traffic from the airport to the Capitol complex and universities.

For at least 15 years, there has been talk of improving Gaines Street, beginning with the Florida Department of Transportation’s plans to widen it to six lanes. That idea has gone by the wayside in favor of a plan to revitalize the corridor’s commercial and residential culture – to slow down the traffic-moving gateway and turn it into a leisurely pedestrian destination free from fast-moving cars.

The key to that idea was turned this past June when the Tallahassee City Commission agreed to go forward with plans to convert Gaines from a four-lane, two-way avenue to a two-lane, two-way road. Officials said the city has $34.5 million allocated for the design and development of the Gaines Street plan.

“The decision which the City Commission made to maintain the two-way configurationof Gaines and Madison streets was done to facilitate efforts to encourage residential and pedestrian activity,” said Tallahassee Mayor John Marks. “These actions should encourage the development of restaurants, retail and residential uses along that corridor.”


Marks said the plan also includes the construction of a new east-west roadway – basically an extension of FAMU Way – south to Gaines Street to help mitigate the transportation effects of removing two traffic lanes from Gaines Street, which is being done to provide on-street parking.

Ruth Wharton, chairwoman of the 10-year-old Gaines Street Vitalization Committee who works in the artsy Railroad Square quarter, is excited about the chance to turn Gaines Street around. The committee worked for years to come up with the plan the city now has committed to carrying out – and which still will take years to accomplish.

“I think the whole town will want to come out here,” Wharton said. “I think it will be a great mix of students and non-students. There’ll be people coming here to see plays, a movie theater may be in the area, there’ll be lots of restaurants and nightclubs and bars, coffeehouses and bookstores, probably some great little food markets and specialty shops.”

But while this new and improved Gaines Street is welcomed by most of the area’s stakeholders, the transformation of the road itself concerns at least one local businessman.  Jim Dowling, vice president and co-owner of J. H. Dowling Inc., a landmark construction supply lumberyard on nearby Madison Street, said he generally supports the idea of a revived neighborhood but said a slower, narrower Gaines Street could force his company to move. He said traffic spilling over to Madison – caused by motorists wishing to avoid Gaines – could uproot his family’s business for just the third time in 51 years. (The company began at another downtown location in 1946 but moved to Madison Street in 1955.) 


“Change is inevitable, but the question becomes where will we end up, where will we go?” he said. 

Part of the problem, Dowling said, boils down to safety. Lumberyards and construction supply houses like his tend to attract a great deal of big-truck traffic, especially when they service clients across the state. 

“We have between five and 15 semis per day coming in and out of our facility delivering products and picking up material,” Dowling said. “Madison is kind of a sleeper street right now, not a main thoroughfare, which means there’s not a whole lot of traffic on it. But what they’ll do is severely impact our business, because they’ll reduce Gaines Street to two lanes. They’ll have to move traffic over to Madison. My concern is with this increase … with semis coming in and out of here, and along and in hand with the increase in traffic, there’s a high potential of a traffic accident. 

“Also, these semis have to pull off the side of the road or back into our facilities,” he said. “Sometimes, there are three trucks parallel-parked on Madison. It’s really going to choke up this area, because the traffic wants to keep going but they’ll have to stop (and wait for the trucks). I’m afraid it’s going to choke us out of our current location.”

Marks said there are upsides and downsides to the design of the corridor.


“The advantage . . . will be a vibrant active downtown area with restaurants and entertainment venues and residents,” he said. “The disadvantage will be that Gaines Street will no longer be able to service the amount of traffic that it currently does and will not be as efficient as an east-west corridor for persons wishing to travel through the downtown area.”

Regardless of the disadvantages, Wharton and others defend the city commission’s plans to reduce the number of lanes on Gaines. She said the commission’s vote was a positive move that ultimately should lead to a complete makeover of the corridor.  “I was thrilled. I really felt like the city staff needed to hear some direction from the City Commission about what was important to them, and it was important to them to create a corridor where businesses and pedestrians are comfortable,” she said. 

Wharton said she has heard all kinds of plans since she started going to Gaines Street visualization meetings around 2000. In 2003 she became chairwoman of the committee, which has been around since 1997. And what got her attention was the sheer number of people who work and go to school around Gaines Street. 

“Our committee heard from consultants that were helping us develop the Gaines Street Vitalization Plan, and they said that within a 10-minute walk of the intersection of Railroad Avenue and Gaines Street there are currently 60,000 people,” she said. “There are 40,000 from FSU, 10,000 from FAMU and another 10,000 state workers. That is greater density than downtown Miami. And the redevelopment potential for this area is incredible. Tallahassee needs a place where people can go and hang out, and we don’t have that.”

Marks agrees.

“If we are successful in redeveloping Gaines Street into a pedestrian area, there will be many beneficiaries,” he said. “Gaines Street, with Railroad Square and the All Saints area, already has attributes that, with property facilitation, could become destinations for visitors and persons wishing to live downtown.”

Property owner and Gaines Street Vitalization Committee member Joyce Magill said it’s about time the city moved forward with the first steps toward a new Gaines Street. 

“I’m so grateful; we’re on the right track, and everybody is moving forward,” said Magill, whose family has owned property along Gaines and Railroad for decades. “The shop owners are very excited.” 

Magill said her grandfather, Joe Nahoom, opened American Restaurant Supply on Gaines Street some 55 years ago, then later moved it to a spot on Railroad Avenue. During those years he bought up as much nearby property as he could, Magill said. When Nahoom was forced to quit working because of declining health, Magill took over managing the family holdings, fixing them up and renting them out to local businesses. Today, those include Heavenly Catering, Computers First, Shear Image, All Saint’s Café, Fat Sandwich and the Beta Bar. 

“I worked very hard at renovating the buildings,” Magill said. “I had a very specific idea of what kind of tenants I wanted, which is in line with what the Gaines Street committee wanted. We wanted a place where people could go and do things, spend time, buy things, have coffee – a place that could be a destination.” 

That may be well and good, but back over on Madison, Dowling said his lumberyard may not fit in well with coffee shops, beauty parlors and nightclubs, most of which appeal to college students living nearby.  “I know that FSU is growing, they need more space, and evidently what they are indicating is they need more entertainment, more shopping and more of anything that will appeal to a college student in this area,” he said. “That’s what they’re looking for, and a lumberyard is not appealing to a college student. That’s why I say we are basically the outcasts of this area.” 

Guiding Growth

The city owns about 22 acres along or adjacent to Gaines Street, Marks said.

“For those properties, the city can directly control the selection of the developer and the type of development that takes place,” the mayor said. “However, that represents only a small portion of the property that will ultimately be redeveloped.”

To ensure all development along Gaines will be done according to the objectives of the revitalization plan, Marks said special zoning districts have been established.

“These zoning districts help regulate the uses which will be allowed along the corridor and dictate some minimum design features which must be included in developments,” he said.

The FSU Land Crunch 

Business owner Dowling isn’t the only one worried about the future of Gaines Street. Mark Bertolami, the director of facilities planning and campus master planning at Florida State University, also is getting a little nervous. 

“We’ve been as involved in the Gaines Street study as anybody else,” Bertolami said. “It’s not something we have taken lightly. It’s something we’re very interested in.” 

Within the next decade, his student population is expected to go from today’s 37,000 to about 50,000 – all on approximately 450 acres. And there’s no new places for them to live, except perhaps in new student housing called for in the Gaines Street revitalization plan.

“We are anywhere between two and four times more densely populated than our sister institutions. We’re twice as cramped,” Bertolami said.

Bertolami said that back in the mid- to late 1980s, campus planners expected the university’s boundaries would be defined by Gaines Street to the south, Macomb Street to the east and Tennessee Street to the north. The timetable called for the Gaines Street boundary to happen by 2000; it hasn’t made it. 

“We were naïve to think we were going to get down there as quick as we thought,” he said. “The reason for that is the money to buy more land just hasn’t materialized.

“The Florida Legislature has been very generous with us, but by no means have they gone ahead and bought the property we wanted to buy,” Bertolami said. “The governor has vetoed in the past some of our land acquisition money. We have meaningful and significant pieces, but if I were to show you a map of the 600 acres we envisioned, we are 100 acres short and (have) no money to buy land.” 

This lack of space has prompted the university to make some hard decisions, he said. “Because land is so precious, the administration has decided to move some people off campus,” he said. “We’ve actually shut down the Stultz Pool, the old outdoor pool near the student union. We closed that pool down and we’re rebuilding an aquatic center near the FSU Golf Course on Orange Avenue. So on the pool site we are building a classroom building. Also, we have designed a new intramural complex west of the golf course. It’s 104 acres. We are basically shifting all the student recreation programs off campus. And last year the president made the decision to move the FSU Foundation. We moved them out of the stadium to a space we have at Innovation Park. Once the foundation moved out, we could expand college communications and give them more space to have labs and classrooms. 

“If you look around town, the university leases land off campus,” Bertolami said. “Our anthropology lab is on Tennessee Street.”

Another item for their consideration is what to do with the university’s existing intramural fields, which sit on 14 acres of prime Gaines Street real estate.  “It hasn’t been decided what to do with that 14 acres. It depends on what the city does,” Bertolami said. “Maybe we underestimated things, but we cannot keep pace, so we’ve had to make some painful decisions about who stays and leaves campus,” he said. “It gets difficult. Now we are fighting among ourselves for land. Athletics didn’t want to move the pool off-campus, and the president had to step in and say a classroom was more important. We’d love to keep it, but there’s just not enough land available.”

One FSU professor who is comfortable with being off campus is Bob Bischoff, who teaches the Master Craftsman arts program in a tin barn near Woodward Avenue. The program is most visibly famous for its huge stained glass portrait of FSU football coach Bobby Bowden, which adorns Bobby Bowden Field.

“We were hidden in a basement in the William Johnston Building for four years. It gave us a chance to get our feet wet,” Bischoff said.

But now that they’re off campus, they have an opportunity to create a real public attraction on Gaines, Bischoff said. His dream is to create an art studio with a Greek Revival-style facade, with a firing furnace for glass blowing and blacksmithing off to the side. Students working the furnace at night would provide an educational spectacle to folks exploring Gaines Street.

“Tallahassee benefits because it’s a cultural interest. Gaines Street benefits by having a place for people to gather that they don’t have now,” he said. “It is a good reason to come to Gaines Street. There’s not a whole lot now. This would be the start. It doesn’t require tickets sold or dollars put in constantly.”

Right now, though, it’s just a plan – a computer-generated rendering. Bischoff hopes that soon he will have the money to start building the facility.

“I’m hoping that within the next one to one-and-a-half years, depending on my financing, it gets built. We asked the city for a half million and they seemed receptive. What that means in reality, I don’t know. I haven’t seen a check,” he said. “(FSU President) T.K. Wetherell is supportive of the program. He has it high on his priority list. He appreciates the craftsmanship, the art, the exposure. It can work for the city and FSU at the same time.

“I think Gaines Street is a rocket ship. All it needs is ignition,” Bischoff said.

What They Are Saying

Compiled By Jason Dehart 

“I’m very inclined to support two-way streets. The thing I want to avoid doing is not doing anything for three years. We want it to be successful. We’re investing lots of (Community Revitalization Agency) money.”

– Tallahassee City Commissioner Allan Katz

“We must recognize that roadway changes must be properly sequenced to avoid gridlock.”

– Tallahassee City Commissioner Debbie Lightsey

“Moving traffic quickly was never a goal. There are only a couple east-west routes. Part of our job is allowing the traffic to move while doing all this other stuff (revitalization efforts).”

– Tallahassee City Commissioner Mark Mustian

“I thought our objective would be to make it a pedestrian-friendly right-of-way. (We’ve) got to realize that what we do is going to slow down (traffic going to and from downtown).”

– Tallahassee Mayor John Marks

Source: Discussion during June 7 regular Tallahassee City Commission meeting. At the meeting, commissioners approved a Gaines Street plan calling for Gaines Street to become a two-way, two-lane road with on-street parking and slow speeds. 

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